What an awesome send-off before we venture down to California! We spent this past Saturday night in the Park Butte lookout tower on the South-West side of Mt. Baker and the mountain was an amazing sight!
Our last training hike ended up being one of the better ones, thanks to a few different factors. First of all, we were patient enough to wait until the weather improved, starting our hike later in the afternoon on Saturday. The higher meadows were still snow-covered, which meant the trail wasn’t as crazy busy as it can be on a nice day. And I believe that hiking a popular trail one week before a long weekend makes a big difference in crowds!
Before I get too deep into the trail description, here are the hike stats:
Hike Name: Park Butte
Date: Saturday June 25 – Sunday June 26
Location: Mt. Baker Wilderness, WA
Approx. drive time from home: 2 hours
Distance: 7.5 mi. / 12 km (return)
Elevation gain: 2200 ft / 670 m
Max. elevation: 5450 ft / 1661 m
Hiking time: 4.5 hours
This trip was my fourth time to this trailhead and my second time up to Park Butte lookout. The same trailhead offers the choice of three trails: Park Butte, Railroad Grade and Scott Paul Loop. Park Butte is the shorter of the three, but can be combined with the others for an epic weekend of hiking.
We hit the trail right around 4 pm under clearing skies, with our packs nearly as full as they’ll be for the JMT.
The first section of trail was a gradual climb through the beautiful greenery of Schreibers Meadow. After crossing a couple boulder fields and the aptly named “Rocky Creek,” we found ourselves back under the cover of trees and working our way uphill.
The next mile and a bit climbed steadily with easy switchbacks in order to gain the alpine meadows below Mt. Baker. We were rewarded for our efforts with some peek-a-boo views of the mountain through the clouds.
The meadows were entirely snow-covered so we took a few minutes to put our trail crampons on. The snow was just slushy enough that they gave us the perfect amount of traction to keep moving along at a good pace.
We veered left at the junction for Railroad Grade and steered our way through the stands of trees and across another snow-covered meadow before making one last push up to Bell Pass where we’d set up camp for the night.
The campsite we chose is known as “Cathedral Camp” and usually has a handful of site pads as well as a backcountry loo. Unfortunately everything was still covered in a foot or two of snow. We were somewhat prepared for this possibility and got to digging out and levelling a good spot for our tent.
We enjoyed a good dinner and made friends with a neighbouring camper while waiting to see if the clouds would lift further. They continued to sit stubbornly over us but I decided that we should push on to the Park Butte lookout in hopes of perhaps ending up above the clouds before sunset.
I am very very glad that I pushed us along the trail. We popped out of the cloud
s about 500 feet below the lookout and were treated to an amazing view of Mt. Baker dolled up in sunset colours. It took us about 30 minutes to get up to the lookout tower and once there we found out that we had the place entirely to ourselves.
For anyone familiar with the trail, you will know that most Saturday nights the lookout is crammed full of people. Last summer I went up one morning to find about eight people had slept inside and another four had hung hammocks from the railings! Not my idea of a peaceful place to spend the night.
With the view and the isolation, Dan was inspired to hustle back down the trail and grab our clothes, sleeping bags and pads. This left me alone to admire the changing light on the mountains for a while and to revel in just how lucky we are to have such amazing wilderness right at our back door.
A little before Dan made it back with our sleeping gear I was joined in the lookout by another fellow hiker. Jess was also Canadian and was taking the summer to explore the National Parks of the US. We couldn’t have asked for a better companion to spend our night with.
The clouds eventually hid the setting sun but the sky stayed lit well into the evening. We finally tucked in around 10:30 with the sky still glowing. I will admit that I barely slept that night. I kept waking and rolling over to look out the window at the mountain. I even went out around midnight to look at the Milky Way. The Eastern sky started to turn orangey-red sometime around 4:30 am, and the sun finally rose an hour later, blasting us with light and heat.
Somehow we managed to sleep until about 7:30. Dan and I decided to have a lazy morning at the lookout while Jess was going to head down the trail and back up along Railroad Grade across the meadows from us.
We kicked around until the first few day hikers came up and then hiked back to our lonely tent to pack up and head out. We got back to our car around 12:30 and treated ourselves to a celebrational lunch at our favourite Mexican restaurant in Sedro-Woolley.
Next stop: Yosemite!